Deserters aren’t born, but made: Bowe Bergdahl and moral injury

US army ‘deserter’ Bowe Bergdahl had deep and abiding questions about the justice of the cause he signed up for. EPA/IntelCenter

The public debate around the recent prisoner swap that saw US Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl returned from five years’ imprisonment in Afghanistan in exchange for five senior Taliban leaders has had two main themes.

First, it has focused on the disproportionality of exchanging five high-level members of a terrorist organisation in exchange for one US sergeant who is, in reality, a private whose promotions came only as a product of time served.

Objectors have also expressed their outrage at the fact that US military resources, including the lives of six other soldiers, were expended in order to return a soldier who, according to reports, deserted from his post after becoming radically disillusioned with the war. Why would the US waste valuable resources and courageous lives to return a soldier who had failed in his duties in the worst possible way?

Author Robert Fantina has previously written of a “knee-jerk reaction” that is “long ingrained in the American psyche”, namely that:

If a soldier deserts he is either a traitor or a coward.

However, this assertion is rarely true, especially in modern militaries, where military personnel are provided with psychological conditioning to help them perform their roles. The modern deserter is more likely to fit Fantina’s description:

When a soldier decides to desert, he or she individually opposes the government presumed strongest in the world, and that government’s military, which purports to all but own the soldier. Often, the reason for the desertion is military life itself, complete disillusionment with the war the soldier has been forced to fight, or a combination of both.

Fantina claims that desertion is, in fact, more likely to be a moral action than an immoral one. He concludes, regarding Bergdahl’s desertion that if he did in fact desert, then:

… he is to be commended for his courageous, moral behaviour.

However, Fantina’s position merely substitutes the knee-jerk attribution of desertion to cowardice with a knee-jerk attribution of desertion to courage. Neither is helpful for the contemporary debate. Each shares a fundamental flaw in assuming that the act of desertion is representative of the typical moral character of the individual in question.

Although this might occasionally be true, desertion is more often likely to be the product of moral or psychological trauma suffered by combatants during their time in war. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is a more illuminating framework through which to understand Bergdahl’s story.

The psychological trauma military personnel face in war has found a name and face in the diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which psychologists are learning more about and military leaders are (slowly) recognising as a serious threat to the well-being of veterans.

PTSD, which was once known as “shell-shock” was a condition frequently associated with cowardice, and its victims were often charged with desertion. We now know, however, that PTSD is the experience of prolonged, invasive, debilitating fear of vulnerability and victimhood as a product of witnessing or experiencing severe trauma. Some have argued that PTSD is:

… a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

However, alongside the psychological trauma that threatens military personnel in times of war there exists the possibility of moral injuries to combatants as a product of what they are required to do. This notion, which has received far less attention than PTSD, is described amongst many veterans as “moral injury”. This is a term usually attributed to military psychologist Johnathan Shay, who describes it as:

… the soul wound inflicted by doing something that violates one’s own ethics, ideals, or attachments.

In his work at the US Veterans Administration, Shay observed veterans whose struggle to transition back into civilian life was not caused by crippling fear in response to the threat of death, but paralytic guilt in response to actual or perceived transgressions of morality.

The crucial difference between moral injury and PTSD is the nature of the stressor. While PTSD begins with experience or threatened experience of a violation of the safety of themselves or someone they love, moral injury begins with what Shay describes as “betrayal of what’s right”.

According to Brett T. Litz and his co-authors, who recently conducted a quantitative study into moral injury, moral injury is created through:

… perpetrating, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.

Bergdahl had deep and abiding questions about the justice of the cause he signed up for: that is, to borrow the language of Just War Theory, about the ad bellum justifications for the war. Further, he had deep and abiding objections to the manner in which the war was being fought, having witnessed an Afghan child being run over by a US vehicle and feeling frustrated that his platoon weren’t more actively pursuing insurgents.

In light of this, Bergdahl appears to have been unable to justify his participation any longer, and subsequently deserted. However, his desertion was not so much a reflection of any deep cowardice or courage of character as it was a product of the circumstances and environment of a war whose objectives frequently changed, and whose justifications were at times dubious – even to the military personnel involved in fighting it.